If I’m honest, I find most books to be a distraction. They are an entertainment, driven by a primordial need to know what happens next, but they rarely do what literature purports to do – stop me in my tracks and make me think. Yet, every once in a while a book comes along that gets me excited about reading again. Today, the Goldfinch is that book.
At 860 pages it is a beast of a novel. The story follows the life of a young man, Theo Decker, from the ages of thirteen to twenty-seven. As a young teenager Theo survives the bombing of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York. His mother, with him on the day of the blast, is not so lucky. This event together with a 350 year old painting – The Goldfinch – shapes Deckers subsequent years, which see him batted back and forth between the wealthy family of a schoolfriend, drug addiction, fellow survivors of the museum bombing and, ultimately, a criminal underworld.
The book draws obvious comparisons with Dickens (and by some critics in a spirit of unkindness – JK Rowling) as the book follows the sprawling early years of an intelligent but deeply flawed hero and paints a world that is, at once, deeply believable and highly caricatured. Having visited many of the books locations I was taken by a rather Dickensian phenomena – the novels visions of New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam are highly stylised and immediately recognisable. The reader can see and feel in stark clarity where Theo is at any moment even while acknowledging that the world Theo occupies is far from ‘real’.
Less openly discussed are the parallels that one can draw with The Goldfinch and the existentialist tradition. Donna Tartt seems to write about the sense of disorientation in the face of a meaningless and absurd world. Everywhere Theo goes he is in the world but not of it and it is only a painting, that seems to defy clarity of meaning itself, that offers him any sense of grounding or direction. Towards the end of the novel Theo speculates on why we (human beings) place such importance and purpose on ‘beautiful things’. We are all doomed to die, there is no fairness in life – life just is – and yet we cling to objects to give us meaning where there is none and which mock us with their own relative immortality in stark contrast to our own short and meagre existences.
The Goldfinch has courted no small amount of controversy thanks to a classic ‘yes, but is it art’ debate bubbling amongst the literati and a pulitzer prize pinned to its lapel. Some critics have dismissed the Goldfinch as low brow tat masking as purposeful literature. My own sense is that this argument is highly elitist. It suggests that something that is popular cannot be ‘good’ and that writing must be difficult if it is to have any worth. Certainly there is no obligation for anyone to like the Goldfinch, but it is highly disingenuous to dismiss it with a wave of the hand merely because it is accessible.
Other criticisms of the Goldfinch take the form of ‘well it is Dickens lite but Dickens it ain’t’. While I sympathise with these arguments my own take on it is slightly different. One theme that runs through the novel is the nature of authenticity. Theo, spends some time dealing, knowingly, with fake antiques, selling them to gullible individuals with more money than sense. We are reminded here that both a considerable amount of time and care can go into these fakes which can fool some of the people some of the time. However, it is only the genuine article which can truly inspire. As if to hammer home the point, a copy of the Goldfinch is printed on the inside cover of my paperback edition. I feel that Tartt’s efforts here are deliberate. She knows she is not Dickens or Sartre and even though the copy she makes is very convincing and has been lovingly crafted over a period of 10 years it is not the same as Great Expectations. In this sense, those who are critical of her ‘forgery’ are missing the point.
Of course I could be reading too much into to this. However, in the existentialist tradition, if I derive some sense of meaning or pleasure from the novel and if it helps me to understand my life, then does it matter at all that it is not authentic?